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Americans channel ancient Rome in condemning Confederate statues

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The ancient Romans loved to destroy statues almost as much as they loved to admire them. Americans may be following in their footsteps as we decide whether to celebrate, destroy or relocate Confederate statues. The campus where I work, The University of Texas at Austin, is wrestling with this very question

After an unpopular leader died, the Romans were known to vandalize the leader’s monuments, likenesses or even property. The practice occurred so often that historians came up with a name for it: damnatio memoriae. Translated literally, it means “condemnation of memory/legacy.”

{mosads}The term encompasses a variety of acts, from outright destruction to literal defacement: sculptors would sometimes chip away at the likeness of a deposed leader until it resembled the new one. Whether this was done to save money on expensive marble, or as a silent signal to the new leader that his own face could be just as easily replaced, remains a matter of debate.


Sometimes the Roman Senate would sponsor the condemnation, sometimes the army or sometimes the people would take it upon themselves to attack the tangible reminders of the person in question. The Romans did not invent the concept, but they certainly honed and developed it into an instrument of the state.

They nevertheless had experience with the practice well before they applied it to their own leaders: Rome’s destruction of Carthage around 146 BCE spelled not only death and enslavement for Carthage and its people, but also obliteration of its monuments and historical records. In a world where public monuments served as a visual complement to the oral history of a mostly-uneducated public, the message of “damnatio memoriae” was clear: do well by the Senate and people of Rome in life, or risk the tarnishing of your legacy in death.

There are several important differences between the ancient Roman practice and what we are witnessing today. First, the public in modern America is much better educated than in ancient Rome. Americans also have the internet, and with it almost unfettered access to historical records.

Second, Roman “damnatio memoriae typically occurred right after the death of the unpopular leader, whereas the current calls for condemnation are occurring more than a century after the Civil War. Most of the Confederate monuments were themselves erected well after the deaths of the people they depict, some of them several generations later.

Third, the public’s current condemnations seem to be directed at more than just a singular person (like Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis).

Some similarities, however, are difficult to ignore. Both the ancient Romans and modern Americans seem to share the feeling of catharsis that comes with participating in the physical repudiation of symbols which, to them, represent an unjust status quo.

Indeed, a video which captured the destruction of a monument to the anonymous Confederate soldier last week in Durham, North Carolina, suggests that some of the public’s sentiment goes well beyond the desire for mere removal of such symbols. The mood in Durham was at once festive and invective. After toppling the statue to the ground, individuals from the crowd rush forward to spit on and kick the silent soldier. Onlookers cheer with delight as those who come forward direct their blows to the body of the statue, almost as if they expect the spirit of the soldier to feel shame or suffer injury.

Nearly 2000 years earlier, the Roman Senator Pliny the Younger witnessed a similar scene following the emperor Domitian’s assassination in 96 CE. Pliny himself took part in the destruction of Domitian’s many statues and images, and recounted later “how delightful it was to smash to pieces those arrogant faces, to raise our swords against them, to cut them ferociously with our axes, as if blood and pain would follow our blows”. Perhaps hoping to avoid similar acts of vandalism, some city governments (such as Baltimore) have chosen to quietly remove Confederate statues before the public does it for them.

In Rome, the antithesis of “damnatio memoriae” was consecration. An emperor or general who gained the favor of the Senate and people could be honored in public as a hero during the Roman Republic, or even as a god during the Roman Empire. Those statues that remained undamaged would serve as focal points for veneration from the Roman public.

This belief, that perpetuation of a person’s image amounts to consecration, is implicit in the current condemnations of Confederate monuments. Moreover, many in the public are now directing their ire not just at the Confederacy, but also at what they perceive to monuments celebrating our country’s sordid history of discrimination. For instance, last week people in Philadelphia vandalized a likeness of former police commissioner Frank Rizzo, who earned a reputation for encouraging brutal enforcement tactics against black and gay communities in the 1960’s and 70’s. Similar sentiments underscore the campaign to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, for his connection to the many abuses of Native American people.

If the public outrage is truly directed not at a particular person, but rather at the injustices of the past as judged by the standards of the present, then we must also take a hard look at other monuments that we choose to leave in place.

Consider the fact that modern warfare is evaluated not only by the causes of the war (jus ad bellum) but also by the actions of individuals during the war (jus in bello). Keep this standard in mind the next time you visit Washington, DC, where a monument to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman stands not far from The White House. Sherman gained fame in the North and infamy in the South for his use of scorched earth tactics during his March to the Sea at the end of the Civil War. While the cause of Sherman’s side may have been just, his actions during that war would have earned him a trial at The Hague if he committed them today.

What does this signal? The simplest conclusion is that if your ends justify your means, then you get a nice statue after you die.

Are these the sorts of messages we want to send to our descendants? I suggest a more radical departure from the historical cycle of monument building and destruction: do not to remove any of them, but rather leave them all standing while erecting permanent plaques beneath each monument to place them in proper historical context. Or if we must remove one symbol, then remove them all to museums or cemeteries, especially those in our nation’s capital. For instance, the University of Texas has decided to remove several monuments with Confederate ties from outdoor public display. Their ultimate fate now rests in the hands of the University’s Briscoe Center for American History.

As a society we should erect monuments that reflect the ideals we wish to venerate. The federal government should therefore erect a new monument to commemorate those who died during the Civil War: all historically verifiable combatants and non-combatants, both Union and Confederate alike. No statues of people, no indication of sides and no ranks, just names in alphabetical order like the Vietnam War Memorial. It is hard to hate a name when it sits beside so many others, much harder than it is to topple a statue.

Patrick Byrne is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Molecular Biosciences at the University of Texas, Austin. Byrne received his doctoral degree from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland,

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